If you see only one film this year shot on an iPhone 5s and focusing on transgender hookers in LA, make it this one.
A welcome return from the film festival (which in 2013 played director Baker's Starlet), Tangerine has attracted attention for being shot on iPhones (albeit clipped to a Steadicam kit and equipped with prototype anamorphic lenses).
It was a budget-driven decision rather than a stylistic gimmick, although Baker and his fellow camera operators turn in some scintillating widescreen visuals, particularly of sunset and dusk in the grimy, crime-addled West Hollywood setting.
Swaggering purposefully along these mean streets is the colourfully named Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Rodriguez), just out of a 28-day lag and on the warpath: her boyfriend, Chester (Ransone), has been playing around with a woman (that Sin-Dee refers to her as a fish tells you much of what you need to know).
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Sin-Dee tracks the woman, Dinah (O'Hagan), to a dingy motel, part crack-den, part brothel, and drags her (literally) around the neighbourhood on an expletive-fuelled odyssey that intersects with the lives of fellow trannie Alexandra (Taylor) and Razmik (Karagulian), an Armenian taxi driver who is by no means as dispassionate an observer of the goings-on as he at first appears to be. It sounds like a hideously seedy affair (heed the censor's rating) but miraculously Baker finds in these lives of not-so-quiet desperation a transcendent and deeply moving humanity.
The film has the guerrilla feel of observational cinema, caught on the fly, but there is real artifice at work: the editing, by turns choppy and fluid, is a marvel of precision, cutting back and forth between the storylines in what seems close to real time.
It exudes a terrific, urgent energy that elevates it far beyond its grubby milieu into a handsome and touching portrait of human beings struggling to stay afloat. Highly recommended.
Cast: Kiki Kitana Rodriguez, Mya Taylor, Karren Karagulian, Mickey O'Hagan, James Ransone
Director: Sean Baker
Running time: 87 mins
Rating: R16 (violence, offensive language, drug use, sexual material) In English and Armenian with English subtitles
Verdict: An improbable triumph.